Improvisation at the piano Part 1

May 22, 2019

Improvisation practice goes hand-in-hand with the study of jazz music. Think of it this way - when Beethoven wrote music for his orchestra to play, he wrote down every note, every rhythm, every dynamic fluctuation, every detail for his musicians to play. But when Duke Ellington or Count Basie wrote music for their bands, they left many of the details to the individual players. Whole sections were improvised collectively by the band or left open for soloists. And this sort of improvisation became synonymous with the jazz language. Now improvisation practice is something that is taught at almost every music university. And in this article, we're going to show you some improvisation practice tips which are meant to help you get started with improvisation. These exercises are meant for beginner improvisers, but they are also great practice for all jazz players.

Improvisation Practice Tip #1: Learn the Chord Tones

In a nutshell, improvisation is all about playing notes that correspond to a given chord. So when jazz players look at a piece of music and are asked to improvise, they are really looking at the chord symbols and thinking of the notes which correspond to that chord. And there are certain notes that are very important to know for a given chord - the chord tones. The chord tones are the individual notes which spell the chord. For example:

Improvisation Practice Tips

In order to improvise you need to be able to quickly identify the chord tones, and practice tip #1 will have you memorizing the chord tones quickly. Let's take the chords to the first 4 measures of "Fly Me to the Moon." At a slow tempo, play the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th of each chord. (Your left hand can play the roots of the chords or the actual chords).

Improvisation Practice Tips 1

Practice doing this through the entire song until you're able to play from beginning to end, in time, through all of the chords with no mistakes.

Improvisation Practice Tip #2: Advanced Chord Tone Practice

Now that you've worked through a song playing root, 3rd, 5th, 7th through all of the chords, practice changing the order of the chord tones. For example, try playing 3rd, 7th, 5th, root.

Improvisation Practice Tips 2

Next, practice playing through the following inversions:

  1. 7th, 5th, 3rd, root;
  2. root, 7th, 3rd, 5th;
  3. 5th, root, 3rd, 7th;
  4. 3rd, 5th, root, 7th;
  5. 3rd, root, 7th, 5th.

Remember that the goal is to be able to play through an entire tune in time, correctly identifying the chord tones in the proper order.

Improvisation Practice Tip #3: Four-Note Patterns

For this practice tip we're going to use four notes - the root (or 1st), 2nd, 3rd, and 5th of each chord. For major and dominant chords this will be the root, major 2nd, major 3rd, and perfect 5th. For minor chords this will be the root, major 2nd, minor 3rd, and perfect 5th.

Improvisation Practice Tips 3

Once you've played through the above exercise, practice various permutations of 1, 2, 3, 5 over each chord. For example, try playing:

  1. 1, 3, 2, 5;
  2. 1, 5, 3, 2;
  3. 5, 3, 2, 1;
  4. 3, 2, 5, 1;
  5. 2, 3, 5, 1.

Once you've mastered these exercises, check out Part 2 of this article which presents more advanced practice exercises.